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Dunedin explores world of Wi-Fi

The city is wrapping up a deal to allow wireless Internet access citywide, but it won't be free. Competitors aren't pleased.

By MEGAN SCOTT, Times Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2005

DUNEDIN - Soon, e-mailing a client, checking your stocks or paying a bill online could be done from anywhere in Dunedin - Knology Park, the waterfront or even your back yard.

City leaders are finalizing plans to allow wireless Internet access to anyone within city limits.

Citi WiFi Networks, a private company, plans to place transmitters, or access points, across the city. Those transmitters would send signals from Citi WiFi's headquarters in St. Petersburg throughout Dunedin. The process works similar to the way a cell phone works.

The city will not have to pay for the installation. But the service won't be free.

Citi WiFi Networks would become the Internet service provider for residents who pay $24.95 a month to subscribe. That's less than the DSL or cable modem service offered by Verizon or Bright House Networks. Cable modem access runs about $44.95 a month, DSL $29.99.

Laptop computers equipped with a wireless network card will be able to access the Internet. The network cards generally run around $75. Residents who want to use the service at home could rent a box with an antenna to connect their desktop computer to the wireless network.

Wi-Fi, short for "wireless fidelity," is the wave of the future, according to industry experts. Starbucks is among the nation's first chain stores to offer the service.

"The entire city is going to be like being inside a Starbucks," said Frank McCarthy, founder and president of Citi WiFi Networks.

Besides outlets like Starbucks and Panera Bread, hotels, many bookstores and airports have Wi-Fi capabilities. While Dunedin would not be the first U.S. city to offer universal wireless Internet service (Chaska, Minn., has that distinction), it would be the first in Florida.

In St. Cloud, south of Orlando, computer users can surf the Web for free in a 12-block square of downtown. Orlando provides Wi-Fi downtown along parts of Orange Avenue and Lake Eola Park.

Downtown Tampa has a free wireless zone from the Port of Tampa to the waterfront. And St. Petersburg is considering bringing the service to its downtown.

Clearwater had considered making its downtown a Wi-Fi hot spot. The city abandoned the idea, but does plan to provide wireless access in its main library.

"There aren't a huge number of people that live downtown," said Dan Mayer, information technology director for Clearwater. "Would we want to create it across the entire city? We have never contemplated that nor do we have the means."

Wi-Fi service is popular in Tallahassee, especially during legislative sessions, said Dan DeLoach, chief information systems officer for the city. Thirteen blocks of Tallahassee's downtown have Wi-Fi. There are 300 to 400 registered users at all times.

"People can sit outside, enjoy the sun, eat a sandwich and get on the Internet," he said.

But the capitol is also where a debate is taking place on whether cities should be allowed to launch wireless networks.

Three bills making their way through the state Legislature aim to block cities from going wireless. They also would stop those that already offer it from expanding the service further. The proposed limits are part of a larger bill that would limit public-sector involvement in a number of businesses, including cable TV and broadband services.

The bill is backed by Verizon Communications and Bright House Networks, who say that government should not compete against private entities.

"We just don't think it's fair for the public sector to compete with the private sector," said Verizon spokesman Bob Elek. "We would rather a municipality come to us for help. We're spending billions of dollars expanding the broadband footprint."

Dunedin would not be providing the Wi-Fi service itself, according to City Attorney John Hubbard. Rather, a private carrier will install and maintain the network. No taxpayer money will be used for the installation.

"We can carefully come up with a relationship that does not run afoul of that general principle," Hubbard said.

DeLoach acknowledged that cities and counties have a tax advantage over companies such as Verizon. Those municipalities generally can install wireless for much cheaper than a private company.

There are also more perks.

In Dunedin, for example, Citi WiFi Networks will install and maintain the service and provide wireless Internet service free to 100 city employees, nearly a $60,000-a-year value based on the $49.95 monthly fee for business users. The company also will give the city a percentage of the revenue, although details are still being ironed out.

DeLoach of Tallahassee said wireless cities narrow the digital divide - cheaper service means more people can access the Internet. Also, he said, people in rural communities can often use wireless if DSL or cable modem access is not available.

"Lower your prices and get it to where everybody can use your service," he said of tech companies' complaints about citywide Wi-Fi. "Then we wouldn't have to get into these entrepreneurial activities."

Dunedin is still finalizing the agreement with Citi WiFi. Commissioners are on board with the idea and hope to approve the agreement with Citi WiFi Networks in the near future.

"I'm really excited about this," Commissioner Bob Hackworth said. "It's so cool to be the first one, great selling tool. The revenue sharing I think is important and has a great potential for this city."

--Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report. Megan Scott can be reached at 445-4167 or mscott@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 4, 2005, 05:58:17]


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